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Fully healthy, Foster Huggins enjoying career year for Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse

The thought never crossed his mind, Foster Huggins insisted. Even after enduring an operation to repair the same torn ACL in his left knee for the third time in five years and preparing for another grueling six-month rehabilitation, the defenseman for the Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse team never considered stepping away from the sport he had been playing since he was a sixth grader growing up in Dallas.

After all, as an ardent fan of the Cowboys, Mavericks, Stars and Texas Rangers, Huggins’ life has revolved around athletic competition.

“Ever since I was little, sports has always been a part of my life,” said Huggins, who played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse. “After the first time I tore it, I was pretty down, and I just remember thinking in my room, ‘Who am I without sports?’ and I really wasn’t sure because sports has been such a big part of my life. So once that kind of got taken away from me, I was a little lost. But that was the driving force. I like to be outside and I like to play sports and hang out with teammates. And if I wasn’t able to do that, I knew that I wasn’t going to be in a happy place.”

Happy is an apt adjective for how Huggins is feeling these days. The senior leads all Division I players in caused turnovers this season and ranks third on the team in ground balls for the No. 8 Greyhounds (10-3, 5-1 Patriot League), who welcome Army West Point (5-6, 2-5) to Ridley Athletic Complex on Friday at 7 p.m.

Huggins was selected with the 25th overall pick by Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws on Wednesday night, is a candidate for the Tewaaraton Award — college lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy — and has been regularly cited as having a first-team All-America type of season. It has been a refreshing change from last spring.

As a junior, Huggins finished with a career-high 36 ground balls, but only 17 caused turnovers. At times, his job to cover an opponent’s top attackman was assigned to other teammates.

The reason? Huggins was less than a year removed from his third ACL surgery in July 2016, although he kept that close to the vest. The operation came after a tear suffered while covering former Towson attackman Ryan Drenner in Loyola’s win in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Medically cleared to play in January 2017, Huggins had only about three weeks to regain his conditioning and his confidence in his knee before starting in the team’s season opener against Virginia.

Senior defenseman Ryder Harkins said Huggins pushed through his struggles.

“He was never outspoken about his frustrations, but on the field, you could get a sense that things sometimes weren’t going as easily as they had gone before the surgery,” said Harkins, one of Huggins’ roommates. “Missing the fall made things a little difficult for him in terms of catching up to the speed of the game and getting back in shape. But he’s still a phenomenal player.”

Huggins said he has no regrets about playing, even if he was not fully recovered.

“Personally, it probably would have benefited me to take a year off, but I thought that at the time, helping the team out was the most important part,” he said. “It’s a tough situation, but at the end of the day, I’m happy that I did come back.”

Huggins never complained about his knee, which underwent operations in 2011 and 2013 related to his career as a high school football player, according to his mother. Monica Huggins said her son had vowed not to use his health as an excuse.

“When he came back from that third tear, physically the doctor told him he was good, but mentally it was just tough,” she said. “He had that junior year to kind of get it all together inside of himself. He realized this was it, and he was good. After that third tear, his determination was far and above the other two.”

An injured knee can wreak havoc on a defenseman’s footwork and flexibility, said CBS Sports Network analyst and former Delaware defenseman Evan Washburn.

“If you don’t have complete confidence or strength in one of your knees — and I know this having torn both of my ACLs — it’s a very difficult position to play because so much of it is drop-stepping and going full speed in one direction and then reacting to an attackman and then stopping and planting and going the other way,” he said. “If any part of that is a little bit vulnerable, you’re just not going to be the player you were before.”

Huggins appears to have regained his form. His 40 caused turnovers are eight more than his closest competitor, and his aggressive style of play is often pointed out by opposing coaches. But Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey said throwing stick checks is not Huggins’ forte.

“When he’s at his best, he anticipates passes,” Toomey said. “He will jump a passing lane on an easy exchange or he will arrive as the ball gets there and he’ll just be in the gloves, just like a gnat all over you.”

Huggins, who is deeply religious, has worn a piece of tape inscribed with “Philippians 4:13” attached to the chin guard of his helmet since he was a freshman. He still wears a brace to stabilize his left knee but only on the advice of his orthopedic doctor, who works for the Cowboys.

Huggins is appreciative of the strides he has made in his final year of eligibility, but he defers praise for his play to his teammates.

“It kind of establishes the fact that all the hard work does pay off,” he said. “At the same time, I can’t take too much credit for that because of all the great players I have around me. There’s [senior goalkeeper] Jacob Stover in the goal, Ryder and [junior defenseman] Paul [Volante] on defense, and a great Rope unit. They allow me to play the style I want to play, which is a little bit more aggressive. It is a good feeling, but I see it more as a team award than an individual one just because they allow me to play the way I want to.”

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